CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #17
THINGS COME TOGETHER
The English word symbol comes from the Greek words sum meaning together and ballein meaning to throw. Symbols gather together multiple meanings and present them as one. The Greek root ballein implies that this happens with a certain suddenness. In other words, the symbol – to those who appreciate it – instantly bespeaks a complex message in totality, as if it were one. Symbols, like jokes, lose their power if they have to be explained.
Symbols also tend to unite those who jointly appreciate them. Thus, the raising of a national flag can be a gathering point for the people of that nation. This gathering may be more or less powerful, depending on the importance of the symbol, its history, how much appreciation the people have for it and other circumstances that might prevail at the time. We could think similarly about other symbols – some more formal than others – such as a wedding ring, a police officer’s badge, a flight attendant’s uniform, a "thumbs up" gesture, a birthday cake or a family barbeque.
Symbols – like poetry and art, metaphors and images – take us beyond the limits of rational thought. They allow us to encounter and engage dimensions of the real world that the rational mind can never reach. They therefore appeal to something in us beyond the purely rational or intellectual.
Symbols can bear testimony to what is going on inside a person or group. We could, for example, wonder what "the outback" symbolises for Australians or "the swastika" for some young people in Germany today or designer clothes for certain people or the off-road vehicle for someone living in the city.
CAN WE THRIVE (SURVIVE?) WITHOUT GOOD SYMBOLS?
Human beings may – and do – make symbols of literally anything – a colour, a design, a landscape, vegetation, a person, an event, a particular gesture or action, etc. So what is happening? Why do we do this? Is it just the residue of a pre-scientific stage in our evolution? Or does it express something of what it means to be a human being? Can you, for example, imagine a human existence without symbols?
The eminent psychiatrist Rollo May offers a response to these sorts of questions:
"We forget at our peril that man is a symbol-making creature; and if the symbols (or myths, which are a pattern of symbols) seem arid and dead, they are to be mourned rather than denied. The bankruptcy of symbols should be seen for what it is, a way station on the path of despair." (Rollo May, Power and Innocence, Fontana Books, 1976, 70.)
Writing on the same theme but in another context, Rollo May observes further:
"I began my study of the relation between myth and culture some years ago when, as a young man, I lived and taught in Greece. What particularly intrigued me was the way the ancient Greeks seemed to handle their anxiety and other psychological problems. In the classical phase of Greek culture, anxiety in our modern sense did not seem to emerge as an overt problem.
"I could not escape the implication that in certain historic periods, the culture provides the help which the individual needs to face the crises of life – birth, adolescence, marriage, procreation, death – so that he does not experience the profound insecurity, self-doubt and inner conflict which we associate with anxiety.
"But scarcely do we propose a discussion of myth and culture when we are confronted by an almost insurmountable obstacle – that is, the myth that we live a ‘mythless existence’. Myths and symbols are scorned and rejected or, at best, taken as unreal, imaginary, and, at worst, become synonyms for ‘falsehood’. The wide prevalence of anxiety and alienation in our society is, I believe, bound up with our rejection of the language of myth. Jerome Bruner put it well: ‘When the myths of society are no longer adequate to man’s plight, the individual first takes refuge in mythoclasm and then he undertakes the lonely search for inner identity’.
"At the outset I shall state the hypothesis which then took shape in my mind: Psychotherapy, and the problems which lead people to come in numbers for psychological help, emerge at a particular point in the historic development of a culture – that is the point where the myths and symbols of the culture disintegrate. The values of the culture are mediated by these myths and symbols, and with their breakdown comes the inner conflict which sends people to psychotherapy." (Rollo May, "Myths and Culture: Their Death and Transformation", Cross Currents, XXXIII, 1 (Spring 1983), 1 (1-16).)
If Rollo May’s analysis is more or less on target – and the evidence would suggest that is the case – what are we to say about our culture at this time? What are our symbols and myths? Where and by whom are they generated? What part are the symbols and myths of our culture playing in both shaping and manifesting the lives we live? What can the symbols of our culture tell us about the direction in which we are moving?
And what about the symbols of the Christian community? Do the great symbols of the Cross and the empty tomb still have the power to set us in motion and enliven us? Do the symbols embodied in the rituals by which we celebrate the Eucharist still have the power to gather the people and draw them into genuine worship? Do we perhaps cling to symbols that no longer have any unifying power, and power to gather? And in those cases where symbols seem to have lost their power to move us, is that saying more about us than the symbol or more about the symbol than us?
There are many questions we might ask. Perhaps the first question any of us should ask is: What is happening with me? Perhaps we have to be more imaginative and deliberate in our efforts today to remain realistically connected to God in our lives, to maintain a lively sense of God’s presence and, in particular, to find concrete and energising expressions of our relationship with God. This will inevitably involve a critical review of our formal and informal symbols.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Using a symbol from your own life, reflect on how symbols work and what part they play in our lives.
Name several of the important symbols in our culture. What do they express?
Can you name one especially positive and life-giving symbol in our culture? Reflect.
Can you name one especially negative and death-dealing symbol in our culture? Reflect.
What would you say is the most powerful symbol in your life? Why do you say that?
Think of something that was once symbolic for you, but no longer is. What has changed?
What is the most significant religious symbol in your life? Reflect.
How do you experience the religious symbols of the Church today?
What can you do to enhance the power of religious symbols in your life?
In what sense is nature symbolic for you? Reflect.